© Daniel Lewis
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Why do elephants drink?
To forget. That joke was never funny but I have to laugh, because if I cry I’ll waste whisky tears, spattering in my ashtray, then drink them right up again.
I am whisky fumes from ageing pores, bad blooding through amber veins and around my forty-five-percenting head. And my sozzled heart? Coursing whisky through everything I am and can ever be.
Standing in my lounge and toasting my red-eyed reflection, half a bottle left to help this elephant forget. All this liquid, and my mouth is dry. All this head spin, and memories still carousel.
Work in three hours’ time. There, they’ll know the part Talisker plays as it flows from breath and actions; a fumy, fatty cloak for all to see.
If I wake. Sip left. Cigarette dead. Fall, sleep, forget…
To your health, mate. You look tired. You should-
Empty glass shatters and I watch dancing shards shine, have a fine time, as I sink to see them settle, whisky-coated and free. Shall I wake? Not my problem. I’ll forget to wake. Forget.
My problem, again.
Slowly conscious, I’m late. June sun filters through blinds. Sweaty heavy-headed, I place my palm on a sliver of glass and holler as it pierces. I rush to my feet, heave before I reach the toilet bowl.
I decide against shaving, coat teeth with toothpaste, gargle mouthwash. As if minty breath will mask the state I’m in. Shower slaps me closer to sobriety and, by the time I’ve slid a plaster across my palm, the shakes have abated. I jump the tube, wolf down sausage and egg McMuffin as I walk to the office. Ignore a phone call from Dad. Collapse in my seat and await the inevitable dressing-down.
Life’s been like this for a while. It’s only a matter of time before I lose my job. Ridiculous, really. Thirty-seven and less capable than the uni-dropouts surrounding me. They think I’m hilarious. I played along at first, let them believe I was out late with lifelong mates every night when the stubble, creased shirts and stale sweet stink started accompanying me to work. Now, I’m sure, they know my truth is less glamorous. I hate every word I say to every soul whose money I take, yet fear the day’s end, because I know what follows.
Three whiskys into the night, I acknowledge that I am what Sophie warned me I’d become. I stand and watch my reflection. Six-one tall, looking just as wide. And I’m expanding. Light sweat coats my lips, my temple, and I’m pale. Like my soul’s been pumped out of me.
Of course she left me.
And who else is there? Grace, I suppose. She laughs at my jokes, rolls her eyes at me during pep-talk meetings-
Who am I kidding? She laughs, but not at my jokes. Best to retain routine. Drink. Forget.
Still drunk but punctual, I dial Dad’s number as I walk from London Bridge station.
“You didn’t return my calls yesterday,” he says.
“Sorry, Dad. Everything alright?”
“It’s Auntie Bonnie.” After all these years, “Auntie”, never “Aunt”.
“Not really, Jim, no.”
I stop walking. “What’s wrong with her?”
“They reckon it’s Alzheimer’s.”
“Who’s they?” I sneer.
“The doctors,” he replies.
“But she’s not even sixty.”
“Younger onset, that’s what they’re calling it.”
My hangover truly kicks in, shirt clinging to skin as my stomach cries. “I don’t understand.”
Dad exhales. “She started acting…erratically a few months back. She’s fine, most of the time. But they did tests. They’re pretty sure. The dementia’s been setting in for a while now, just…keeping a low profile.”
“I’m sorry, Dad.”
“Yes, well…Listen, Jim. You’re her favourite.”
“Only because there’s no one else.”
“Don’t be facetious,” he snaps. “Will you go and see her?”
“When’s good?” I ask.
“Call her. And make it soon.” I hear emotion in his voice for the first time in two years. “She’ll get worse, you know.”
“But she’s not dying.”
He laughs weakly. “She may as well be.”
I lean against a wall. The sun is too harsh and I crave water. I’m not close to Dad, but I still pity him. He lost his wife, now he’s losing his sister too.
And by the time I reach the office, I’m late. I don’t offer an excuse.
Sophie won the car when she left me, so I get the train to Auntie Bonnie’s. The journey from South West to North West London gives me time to think, whether I wish to or not.
Twenty years ago, Bonnie was a successful artist. Her work still sells now. She’s lived in St. John’s Wood for as long as I can remember, in a soul-filled flat cluttered with paintings. She’s never married or had kids, and couldn’t be more different from her brother.
Maybe that’s why, when I was young, she meant more to me than Mum and Dad. After all, don’t most children prefer their uncles and aunts? They make you feel like the centre of their universe and disappear home before their novelty wears off. And they spoil you. I used to wait excitedly for Auntie Bonnie to arrive, because I knew she’d come armed with a Star Wars figure, or an easily-punctured plastic football. I remember, shamefully, that the first time she visited empty-handed I acted like a typically surly teen. She explained that she’d stopped bringing toys because she’d presumed I no longer needed them, then offered to return to the previous arrangement, if I was happy for her to view me as a boy, not a man. It was an easy choice.
Deep in thought, the journey passes quickly and, by the time I’m outside Bonnie’s flat, my hangover’s passed.
It takes a while for her to answer the door and, when she does, she squints, momentarily surprised to see me.
“James,” she says; a comforting, caramel voice. I’m always “James”, never “Jim”, to her.
I laugh, keen to keep the visit lighthearted. “You going to invite me in, then, Auntie?”
She ushers me over the threshold and gives me a hug, a second short of awkward. “It must be a year since I last saw you.”
“Surely.” She steps away from me. “Now, shut up and let me look at you.”
She seems fine to me. Mid-fifties and wearing it well; forever my father’s little sister. A few lines, especially around her mouth, and bags under eyes, yet she looks good for her age. Her hair is longer, a lighter brown than I remember, and she’s a third of my size.
“Oh, James,” she says, a sly smile growing. “Are you sure you’re eating enough?”
I blush and pat my treacherous belly. “A bit too much, I’m afraid.”
“And drinking too, no doubt.” She shakes her head. “Take care of yourself. I’ve always said that, haven’t I?”
I nod, giddy with memory swirls. “I’m just not very good at saying no.”
“Evidently,” she says with affection. “Let’s get the kettle on.”
As she walks me through to the kitchen, I realise I’m looking for signs of decline; as if an inability to maintain a tidy home will expose the mess in her mind. But everything is as I remember it: Paintings hang everywhere, brimming bookcases line the hallway, erratically-filed vinyl adds character to her lounge and, in the kitchen, a rack too full of spice jars catches the eye. I find no signs of discord and-
“It’s okay, James. I’m fine.”
“Call me Bonnie,” she laughs. “You’re a man, for God’s sake.”
“It’s just I-”
“Didn’t know what to expect?”
I smile and feel agreeably childlike. “Exactly.”
Bonnie tuts and grabs a jar from an open cupboard. “Black with two sugars?”
She leads me through to the lounge, sits me in the maroon leather chair I used to sink into as a boy. It’s torn and beaten and ridiculously comfortable. Beside it, on a coffee table, rests my steaming mug and a plate of the same biscuits she’s always spoilt me with.
Bonnie stares at her mug cradled in tube map-vein hands. Then, as I reach for a Jammy Dodger, she points at the white telephone on top of the TV.
“What is that, James?”
I stop crunching and my heart plummets. “It’s a phone, Auntie.”
She smiles faintly. “It’s okay. I know.”
“Oh. Of course.”
“A few months back I started to…not feel myself. I kept forgetting arrangements I’d made and…it sounds stupid, but I started leaving the caps off my oil paints.” Her eyes disappear elsewhere. “I’d leave them for days. Paint would clog up the tubes, and I’d barely care.”
“It happens to us all.”
She refocuses on me. “Nonsense. Anyway, one evening, I went to make a phone call, and couldn’t recall the name of the object I’d grabbed. I held it in my hands, but it was alien to me. My mental block frightened me, so I went to the doctor.”
“What did he say?”
“She. Nothing to begin with.” Bonnie drinks her coffee slowly. “The doctors – I saw a few of them – conducted interviews and cognitive tests I barely understood. They were concerned because I’m relatively young.”
“Practically a teenager,” I say, mouth full of Bourbon biscuit.
She laughs appreciatively. “I involved your dad. We haven’t been close for years, but I needed some support.”
“He’s good like that.”
Her voice almost breaks. “He was there when they diagnosed me. They spoke of…plaques and tangles, communication blocked between nerve cells. As I sat there, dumb, he took it all in.”
“He says they diagnosed early-onset-”
“Younger-onset Alzheimer’s. Typical. I don’t even get it when I’m aged and infirm.”
“I’m sorry, Bonnie,” I say.
“Don’t be. It’s more common than you’d guess.”
We finish our coffees. She doesn’t touch the biscuits.
“So what happens now?”
She stands, absently touches the phone. “Life continues. You stop worrying about me and focus on yourself.”
I nod and stand. Moments later I’m hugging her.
“How’s Sophie, then?” she asks once we break apart. “Any wedding plans yet?”
“We split up, Bonnie. Almost a year ago, now.”
For the first time she looks anxious. “Oh, sorry, James. Sorry. Did you…did I know that already?”
I don’t miss a beat. “Dad could have mentioned it, but I’ve hardly been shouting about it.”
She looks distraught. “But you two were together years.”
“I presumed that was it for you. Wedding bells, kids, the lot.”
I’m smiling but this isn’t easy. “Me too.”
“Such a shame,” she whispers, and I can’t tell whether she’s referring to the state of my life or the fact that she was doing so well up until the mention of Sophie’s name.
I call Dad as soon as I leave Bonnie’s flat. “She’s fine,” I say.
“She’s putting on a brave face.”
His tone irritates me. “So what if she forgets things? You forget my birthday every year.”
“That’s because I’m an idiot, son. Listen, she won’t always be this well.”
“I’ve got to go, I’m at the station.”
“I’ve spoken to Westminster council, they’ll provide care services once they’ve assessed her, but eventually-”
“Try not to worry, Dad,” I say, desperate to end the call.
“Thanks for visiting her, Jim. You’re a good son.”
Saturday’s sun is low and tangerine, lighting my way home as it did when I was a child, a paper bag full of melting penny sweets in my fist. Except now, a takeaway bag swings from one hand, a bottle of Talisker from the other.
Back home, I finish my chicken shish, light a cigarette and twist open the bottle. I face myself in the mirror and drink. I’m redder than ever, my eyes are wide, and I seem somehow younger. Just as round, though.
Mogwai’s music surrounds me and, as I swig, ‘Scotland’s Shame’ builds: mournful and breath-stealingly beautiful. Full of love, the song cries and comforts and I almost can’t bear to hear it. Love. I’ve read that that’s the worst thing about dementia: not that it might happen to you, but to someone you love. You watch as the person you adore slowly fades in front of you. Everything you shared loses relevance to them, and you have to accept that the one you love has died. They look the same, but they’re no longer there. Dementia is a dimmer, not a light switch; it takes its time, but the end result is still darkness. You see them at their most vulnerable, shorn of pride and unaware you’re helping them. And you pray, I imagine, for just one hour – an hour! – of lucidity, an hour with them, as they were when you both fell in love, to revisit your lives together, so they can answer your questions and recognise and adore you, and you tell them you love them, and you cry, surely you cry, and they smile and wipe your tears, and ask why you’re crying, and you wonder how much longer you’ve got and the weight on your heart is unbearable, so you simply repeat “I love you” and pray that, if nothing else, they’ll remember those tiny, immense words.
But Bonnie never married. Dad is there out of duty alone. Her friends are flaky and self-obsessed…which leaves me.
I toast and I drink and I mean it this time, I mean it. What I am is because of what I didn’t do. So enough about me.
I swirl Talisker like sweet peaty mouthwash, and sway as the tears come, for once ethereal.
It’s in her eyes. A fading blue sea, calmer every time I see her.
Her smile’s slighter, as if she’s not sure what she’s pleased about, but she embraces me and, within minutes, I’m in the maroon chair, coffee in hand. She doesn’t offer biscuits; she hasn’t in a while.
This is the fourth time I’ve visited since hearing her news two months ago. Dad’s round almost every day and, when he’s not, he’s talking to social services, pre-empting what comes next.
Though, with every visit, I see more of Bonnie’s defiance crumble away, experiencing what she’s going through has exposed how pointless my life has become. So I’m drinking less. And Grace has started throwing me smiles, presumably because I’ve lost weight. A couple of pounds, but it’s a start.
Not that Bonnie notices.
Her voice is thinner now. “I don’t know why your father worries.”
“He sends people round.” She suddenly sounds irritated. “They clean. The kitchen, the bathroom. They do my…”
“Laundry?” I offer. This isn’t the first time she’s mislaid the word.
She smiles, unvictorious. “Laundry.”
“It’s to help-”
“How’s Sophie?” she interrupts.
I drink, decide to be honest. “We broke up. A while ago now.”
She nods, looks disappointed. In me, in herself. “You told me, didn’t you? More than once, I imagine.”
I fidget. “Yes. More than once.”
“Okay,” she says. “That’s okay.”
We drink in silence. She looks around her lounge, studies it almost. It seems sparser, presumably cleaned by homecare workers or Dad.
“I don’t do it anymore, you know,” she confides.
She clicks impatient fingers on right hand, as the left gracefully rises and falls. “All my life, until now.”
“You don’t paint anymore?”
She sighs. “It’s difficult to explain.”
“There’s no need.”
She stares into her mug. “When I was fourteen…fifteen, I went to the park with Joe. Typical big brother: insisting we sit on a…right patch of grass. We had sandwiches and Mum’s lemonade.” She smiles faintly. “So hot that day.”
“As hot as it is now?”
“More…uncomfortable. There was no breeze. A young couple sat nearby. She was blind. Beautiful, ginger hair. Face full of...” Fingertips tap around Bonnie’s nose and cheeks. “Spots.”
“Freckles?” I ask.
“Okay, freckles. I nearly pitied her, but she was so…calm that I didn’t.”
I sink into my chair, happy to listen; when Bonnie speaks at such length, I find it difficult to believe she’s unwell.
“The boy passed her a roll. Um, egg. As she ate it, some fell onto her lap. She patted around her, but couldn’t feel anything, and the boy didn’t help. She continued eating and the sun disappeared, but it felt hotter than before. Joe left to buy…” Bonnie clicks fingers. “Ice creams. The girl lifted her face to the sky and said, ‘I feel like the sun’s beating down on me,’ so the boy laughed and told her it was, then disappeared to find the toilet. Just me and her. She leaned towards me and asked, ‘Excuse me, is the sun really shining? It’s so hard to tell.’” Bonnie fixes on me. Her eyes are both alert and many years away. “I could have told her the truth.”
“And?” I ask.
Bonnie smiles sadly. “I felt...embarrassed so just sat still, hoping she’d think I was no longer there.”
“What did she do?”
“She kept looking without seeing me, flashed the prettiest smile. Lovely teeth. ‘That’s okay,’ she said. ‘I think the sun is shining. I just can’t be sure.’” Bonnie stands and paces the lounge. “I’ve often wondered about her.”
“She sounded strong, Auntie.”
“Stronger than me,” Bonnie exhales. “And now I’m living her life.”
Soon after, I leave.
“Thank you for visiting, Joe,” she says as she kisses me goodbye.
“It’s a pleasure, Auntie,” I reply. “But I’m James, remember?”
It pains me to see a mistake that most would dismiss as a slip of the tongue crush her. She’s confused my name with Dad’s before – a simple meshing of the J’s – and I’ve let it go. But today I can’t. Her eyes close as she nods.
Though I’ve been drinking less, alcohol is all I think about on my way home. Whenever this elephant barges into something upsetting, all he still hopes to do is forget.
Back home, I scoop two packets of crisps into my mouth, whisky wash them down and turn on the stereo.
She’s going. Slowly but with certainty. Dad’s warned me that, once her condition worsens, he’ll have to consider moving her to a residential care home. I think he’s being extreme, but then I don’t see her confusion when she fails to make herself a meal; the rage spurred by Dad’s intrusions; the tears shed when she remembers she can no longer hold a paintbrush steady. Tears that invariably dry as apathy takes over. And I’m not with Dad as her doctor explains that the condition is worsening more rapidly than expected, that lack of identity will eventually segue into complete reliance on others. If you love someone, you’ll do anything for them. But should he have to? Would I?
The whisky burns more than ever on the way down. She’s the only one who’s never expected anything of me. From her, love’s unconditional.
So I drink and I vow never to let her down, whether she knows it or not.
A vicious winter is thawing into spring, but I still feel the cold. I’d like to convince myself that’s because I’ve lost two stone since Bonnie’s diagnosis, but the truth is it’s been a harsh season.
One night three weeks ago, Bonnie must have felt the chill. Dad found out about her decision to run a bath when her downstairs neighbour called at two in the morning to tell him water was streaming through their ceiling. He found Bonnie sitting on the edge of her bed, naked but for the towel bundled in her arms. Tepid water lapped at her ankles, but she remained motionless: a child dangling feet into her paddling pool.
I wish he hadn’t made his decision, but I understand. The residential care home is only a few minutes walk from where Bonnie lived. The staff are friendly and her room is cosy, if small. Nothing about the privately-run home smacks of opulence, yet all of Bonnie’s savings and some of Dad’s will pour into her stay here. I’m sure she never imagined her paintings would pay for others to keep her clean, but that’s irrelevant now; pride is not a part of what remains.
Bonnie’s aged significantly over the last ten months, and fresh wrinkles and too-puckered lips suggest she’s older than fifty-six. She sits on a chair I recognise from her flat, and if she’s been awaiting me she doesn’t let on as I kiss her, then sit on the edge of her bed. Her hair’s wilder than before, weaved with strands of grey, and her lips silently move. The air stinks of soapy perfume, but I suspect it’s not her who sprayed it, not her who arranged the roses on a table.
The irony’s not lost on me: as Bonnie withers, I regain my youth. Sick of being sick, I’ve minimised the drink and takeaways. I’ve reconnected with old friends and reapplied myself at work enough to be considered a laugh, rather than a joke. I’ve still no one to share my days with, but I’m gaining confidence. Every lunchtime Grace steers me towards ‘healthy choice’ sandwiches; every work-night out, she lets me into her life. She’s beautiful to me; mousey hair, only a little overweight, with a sunshine laugh. I haven’t made my move yet.
I’ve occasionally mentioned Grace to Bonnie, but she no longer retains information I feed her. Sad as it is, I know that once conversation runs dry today, I can tell her again that I recently saved Grace from some sleazy idiot in a bar. It won’t matter; she’ll still ask how Sophie is.
But I don’t tell Bonnie that it’s thanks to her I’ve turned my life around, because I dread her staring through me as I reveal what’s closest to my heart.
“Do you want a cup of coffee, Auntie?” I ask. “Nice and strong, one sugar?”
She jerks, as if dragged from a dream. “Yes, one sugar, please.”
I grab the kettle, out of harm’s way on top of the wardrobe, and fill it from the corner washbasin. As it boils, I pull the biscuit selection box from my bag: Marks & Sparks, of course. Nowadays, I find value in anything that spurs remembrance of past visits.
I prise off the lid and show Bonnie what’s on offer. It’s a push too far; the choice upsets her, and she implores me with milky eyes.
I pick out a digestive, break a piece off. “You like this one, Auntie.”
She opens her mouth. Her breath is sour. I gently feed her, feel like a father, but her chewing is so distracted that I don’t give her more. I pour the coffees, top hers up with cold water, and sit back on the bed.
“It’s nice here, isn’t it?” I ask between bites of pink wafer, unable to control my patronising tone. “The nurses seem lovely.”
“I want to go home now,” she says, sudden and certain. Her face sets like a rock.
I swallow scalding coffee. “You are home, Auntie.”
“I want to go home now.”
Cautiously, I ask, “Where’s home?”
She looks down at her coffee, as if unsure what to do with it, then fixes on a point miles away.
“Where is home?” I repeat.
“Home to James,” she says with the tiniest smile.
“But I can’t-”
“Home, James!” she shouts, amused by her line. “Home, James! Home, James!”
“You want to…go to your flat?” I ask, desperate to make sense of her words. “With me?”
Bonnie snorts, more alive than she’s been in weeks. “No. No. To him.”
She nods, exhales heavily. “A big boy now…I saw him.”
“Him?” I ask before I can stop myself. Forevermore third person, my heart burns.
“Always James to me. So common, Jim. Not my decision.”
“James is a nice name,” I say, struggling to follow her.
“He needs to…” Her lips relax into a wistful smile. “Oh, the word…”
“Love!” she exclaims. “Love himself.”
I fidget, reach for a chocolate ring out of habit rather than hunger. “I’m sure he does, Bonnie.”
She stands and her mug slides to the floor. Cold coffee soaks pink slippers as she moves to the bed.
“I never saw him again.”
The biscuit melts as my mouth dries. “Who, Bonnie?”
She laughs, incredulous. “His father!”
I breathe in sharp, lightheaded. I can’t grasp her words yet I can.
“It’s okay,” she whispers. “Only Joe and Yvonne know.”
“Know what?” I ask, still confused.
“Thirty-eight years ago,” I say, mouth parched, heart racing. The biscuit drops, smearing chocolate over sheets and shaking fingers.
“Different, then,” she nods. “Only eighteen. It was common to…”
Her eyes, voids for so long, widen and shine. “Beautiful. Didn’t know I’d…ha, I’d feel like that.”
I’m finding it difficult to hold myself together. “Feel like what?”
A goldfish aching to return to water, she eventually finds her words. “Torn apart.”
What does someone say when their life flips, when a few words change the meaning of so many actions? When they realise that their memories have been endlessly misinterpreted?
I sit and watch her lips move. Like she’s chewing thoughts. Stuck in the past, my mother doesn’t notice the tears edging into my eyes. I grip my hand around her wrist.
“Eight years older,” she suddenly continues. “Joe and Yvonne. Married.”
“It was their idea?” I ask, resenting the couple. An uncle. An auntie. Nothing more.
Bonnie shrugs. “Ashamed…Until I saw him. My James.”
“Too late.” She scratches old woman hair. “Did they even want…”
She fades. Her gaze falls to my hand around her wrist.
“Like your heart breaking, again, again, again. Childish to complain.” She grins. “‘Auntie’. Never ‘Aunt’.”
This time it’s me who lets the silence hang, in a room I want to escape. With her, piggybacked out if need be. She’s so tiny she’d barely be noticed. Barely exists.
One more question to ask before I leave her with memories realer than anything that now surrounds her:
“Why did you never tell him, Bonnie?”
A patient smile, wrinkles die. “Why...more pain?”
“Carried it for years. Disappointment. We…I betrayed him. Why hurt him more?”
It’s difficult to breathe and sweat sidewinds from my temple. “He’d be happy to know,” I say, voice syrup-thick.
“But my pain.”
“Okay,” I say. “I understand.”
She nods, doesn’t recognise her son. He is a memory, the cherished past. There’s no room in her mind for him and me.
I rise and almost fall. My head pirouettes, an empty bottle feeling.
Her eyes, deader by the second, do not follow me.
I dab a tissue to dry her tears, to minimise the chocolate stain on the bed.
“Do you see him?” she asks.
I freeze. “Sometimes.”
“Is he still as big?”
“He’s trying to lose weight.”
“I don’t remember.”
I stifle tears. “It’s okay, Bonnie. He remembers you.”
She stares ahead and I know this is as close as we can consciously get.
“I’m going to go now,” I say.
“Me too, I think.”
I don’t know how to respond so I lean in, kiss her cheek, note the tired smell of her skin, say, “I love you.”
I desperately fix earphones in to drown thoughts in sound, pause outside an off license.
And then I’m moving.
I’m moving and I’m forcing ‘Scotland’s Shame’ louder, louder until my ears ache as my heart aches, pumping blood around my body with new purpose, new direction, and I’m thinking: I’m going to ask her, tomorrow I’ll ask Grace and it’ll work, it has to work, because there’s the chance I’ll too succumb, forget as she forgot, so I must make the most of now because now is all I have and I want to fill my head, store a love story and the story of a life many miles from what it’s been till now, because I could lose it, lose it all, a fate worse than death, so why would I choose to forget, that was wrong but this is me – a newborn – realising I’m going to live, the elephant that never forgets, who knows it may be a ‘No’ but could be a ‘Yes’, a ‘Yes’, a possibility, a future, a lake river sea of memories stored until I know no better, now nearing the station and ‘Scotland’s Shame’ is loud and my heart is heaving, mind is flooding and I’m crying, crumpling to the ground and I’m crying, and to see me you’d think I’d lost the world but I can’t explain how much I’ve won, so I’m crying triumphant, on the ground outside the station, and the music’s so loud and the song’s so right even if its name is not, because I’m crying I’m sobbing but I’m not afraid and I’m not alone and I’m not Scottish and I’m not ashamed.
I am not ashamed.